An Equal Music

The painting on the cover is Orpheus leading Eurydice out of the Underworld by Il Padovino. It is the most gorgeous one from a series of wonderful covers that have graced this novel. And particularly apt as well, for the legend of Orpheus and Eurydice is a parable of love, lost and almost restored by the power of music.

Michael is second violinist in The Maggiore, a string quartet, where he still feels like an interloper for having replaced one of the founding members six years earlier. He teaches mediocre students, feels guilty about his non-relationship with his father, is bored of his girlfriend, worries about how he will cope when the legal owner of his precious Tononi violin dies, and is racked by the memory of his estranged love, the talented pianist Julia McNicholl, whose remembrance is entangled in the very music he hears, plays, and breathes – Bach, Haydn, Beethoven.

A concert and other random events brings Julia back into his life and Michael summons all his energy in an effort to resurrect their relationship once more. But Julia is married now, a mother, and she carries the secret burden of hearing loss, that will preclude the possibility of a love affair based on music-making. Nevertheless the two struggle awkwardly to find a new way of loving one another and communicating through music, even bringing Julia into Michael’s group for a performance of Schubert’s Trout Quintet, but their efforts inevitably fail when Michael presses Julia for more commitment than she is able.

Vikram Seth, who once said “writing about music is like dancing about architecture,” spectacularly succeeds in conjuring up particular spaces through aural cues, and not through descriptions of their appearance. Thus Michael’s home town of Rochdale is represented by a lark’s song, his Bayswater flat by its surprising silence, London parks by pigeons “cooing fatly” and Venice by the music of Vivaldi, played by Julia and Michael in the composer’s church. Music is more than a professional interest for them – they make sense of their surroundings through sound and music. This sonic relationship with the world was at once delicious and refreshing.

Seth also succeeds in representing the fragile and delicate relations of a chamber music ensemble, whose members are often as antagonistic as they are empathetic.

A strange composite being we are, not ourselves any more but the Maggiore, composed of so many disjunct parts: chairs, stands, music, bows, instruments, musicians–sitting, standing, shifting, sounding–all to produce these complex vibrations that jog the inner ear, and through them the grey mass that says: joy; love; sorrow; beauty. And above us here in the apse the strange figure of a naked man surrounded by thorns and aspiring towards a grail of light, in front of us 540 half-seen beings intent on 540 different webs of sensation and cerebration and emotion, and through us the spirit of someone scribbling away in 1772 with the sharpened feather of a bird.

Though this is one of the most beautiful love stories I have ever read, a working knowledge of classical music would have enhanced the experience greatly. The inner ear hears the strains of Beethoven, Schubert, Bach and Vivaldi. The inner eye evokes the mood of fall – a dying fall. There is a companion CD performed by Philippe Honoré, featuring all the pieces of music that are mentioned in the book, which is bound to deepen all the magic and mood of the book. Seth credits Honoré as the inspiration behind the novel in the epigraph,

Perhaps this could have stayed unstated.
Had our words turned to other things
In the grey park, the rain abated,
Life would have quickened other strings.
I list your gifts in this creation:
Pen, paper, ink and inspiration,
Peace to the heart with touch or word,
Ease to the soul with note and chord.
How did that walk, those winter hours,
Occasion this? No lightning came;
Nor did I sense, when touched by flame,
Our story lit with borrowed powers –
Rather, by what our spirits burned,
Embered in words, to us returned.

This is an interview with Vikram Seth about An Equal Music in the January Magazine.

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14 Responses to “An Equal Music”

  1. I loved this book too…It echoed some of my sentiments exactly, perhaps a little too eerily given my situation when I read it 🙂
    I’m a late bloomer when it comes to Seth – this is the first book I finished of his, I am yet to complete A suitable boy and I picked up The Golden Gate yesterday.
    Your review really does a lovely book justice…

  2. My curbside Prophet!!!! is it really you??? i thought you’d dropped us all at the wayside when you left us for a long hiatus. your situation, huh? i thought it was my situation!

  3. Honestly, I think i liked the suitable boy better. Perhaps, i like it when stories are simpler. Complications seem entirely fiction when it comes to living life.

  4. Ohhh, this book sounds soooo good! Will be starting it next week. I’m happy to know there is a companion CD to this novel – will have to pick it up. Thanks for the nice review!

  5. gosh D, i didn’t read Suitable Boy. was the story simpler, do you think? this story is also pretty simple in terms of plot, but it was the music that elevated it.

    you do that, Lotus and i’m so cadging that cd off you as soon as you’re done!

  6. A most excellent review! I did read this book 4 years ago and even without a working knowledge of Western classical music found myself completely entranced.
    Oh and those fragile relationships that often exist within a quartet are all too real. I have read about some real life tiffs that border on the absurd, but with a talented bunch of folks it is not entirely out of place.
    Just as the characters connect thru their music to their surroundings, I was able to connect to this book, as someone who has experienced love and loss an altogether human experience, without which my life would have little meaning.

  7. Finally, a book I too have read!!

    Have to admit though, I didn’t enjoy it as much…I didn’t enjoy his writing in this particular one…and the sense of music was lost on me, so I couldn’t get much off that…yup. Have to agree with Dushyant- Suitable Boy was much better, and Golden Gate incomparable.

    I read Two Lives too…half, actually! It was a good going for a bit, and then it just felt like a soulless documentary…perhaps he was being too true to the truth?

    Actually soulless does it injustice (is it even a word??!!). More along the lines of how it didn’t “tickle the senses”…the five senses plus the humour one!!

    Reading Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s “Love in the Time of Cholera”…will let you know how that went…

    Till then- happy reading, friend!

  8. I just finished A suitable boy a month back and this one’s waiting on the library list. Thanks for the review. Will revisit once I read it.

  9. Never read Seth before :-(. Guess, tis time I did. Nice review. And that’s one countenance of pure transcendence in that photo.

  10. Sanjay, i know what you mean – classical music is something i cannot profess to understand, but i just went into a giggle fit when i read things like “the fridge hummed in the background in C-sharp” and “it’s the wrong Schu” for the difference between Schubert and Schumann. well, stories of romance and longing novels are a dime a dozen – but it was the music that made this story soar above the rest for me.

  11. hey, Shreys am missing your blog more than i can say, and i hope you get back to it soon. i didn’t read A Suitable Boy, but i must get around to tackling it someday, since it comes recommended from you. i only have Golden Gate to compare it to, and with that, somehow, Seth didn’t light my fire. sure, he’s funny and cerebral, and the rhymes are quite satisfying to read after what goes on in some of these newfangled, modern poetry… so yes, i liked this one more. the story is warm and the prose is mellow and sonorous. i liked it.

  12. congrats Parth – if you want to tackle this so soon after the Suitable Boy, then you must’ve liked it!

    Alok Niranjan! don’t mind me – i’ve always wanted to say that to you. [that’s my second favorite exclamation after “Mogambo Khush Hua!”] where have you disappeared, mate?
    don’t you love what they did with his ears in that picture?!

  13. Ah! That moniker. I’d almost forgotten the sound of it 😉
    Had been hearing the sound of the usual music – the cacophonous one that nourishes :-(.

  14. I liked the book too. Nice Review! 🙂

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